Archives For Words and Rabble

If you missed the letter John wrote to me, you can take a look.

Dear John, 

You know I’ve been having some funky dreams this past week. Last night, I dreamed I was writing a letter home from summer camp. I went to bed thinking I’d write you today, and that’s how you showed up in my subconscious. I’m sorry you didn’t get a more exotic storyline, like maybe rushing in on a fire-breathing stallion, bare chested and wielding a Persian scimitar, taking care of serious business. Maybe next time, but still – the summer camp seemed nice and I wanted to be sure to tell you about it, so that’s kind of the same thing. 

I don’t remember the Challenger explosion as clearly as you do. I was in high school, and I remember the devastation — but not the details of the day. The first tragedy that really leveled me was years earlier, Hinkley’s assassination attempt of Reagan. For the first time I realized how evil people could be. That’s an awful thing for a boy to reckon with, isn’t it? 

I thought about you having lunch with your parents most days during your freshman year. That’s a wonderful memory. Did I ever tell you how after college, when I had moved back in with my folks and was driving to Dallas three days a week for grad school, that my mom started packing my lunch again? Just like when I was in elementary school. Maybe once every other week or so, she’d even drop one of those little notes on lace-edged Hallmark paper into my brown paper bag. Her note, penned in her elegant and flawless cursive handwriting, told me how she loved me or how proud she was of me. I still have one of those notes in my drawer. 

A few weeks ago, we passed the one year anniversary of my mom’s death, and last week, my friend and teacher Vigen Guroian’s mom died. He emailed me from the train to Connecticut, on his way to her funeral, and told me that the priest asked him to do the eulogy. If he was able to make his way through it, Vigen planned to read an excerpt from his book The Fragrance of God. I had forgotten that one chapter is a meditation he wrote to his mom, on the hope of resurrection. I told him I would read it again that day, in memory of his mother and my own. He wrote these words to her: “By giving birth to me, Mother, you have ensured my death and in some real sense hastened your own…Now as I watch you diminish with years, I tremble as I confront not just your mortality but also my own, since they are deeply, mysteriously interwoven.”

Mortality indeed. You turn the 49 this year, and I’ll tackle the 45. I’ve often thought I’d hit my stride in my 60’s, but still the years are ticking. It makes me want to live well. It makes me want to speak things that are true and not dink around with goofiness. Do you remember the part in A River Runs Through It (and I think stories 2 and 3 are even better than the first one that gets all the notoriety) when the crew mapping the Bitterroot Wilderness was perplexed about what to do with Wet Ass Creek? The name seemed uncouth, but Maclean and his logging buddies argued that its distinctive name should be honored and not watered down to please the sensibilities of bureaucrats (they even expressed giddy hopes that it might one day become Wet Ass National Park). So the mappers passed Wet Ass Creek up the chain, but suits in a far away office scrunched the letters as one word, dropped an s and added a long-e at the end so that to this day (and I’ve checked) it’s known as Wetase Creek (pronounced: wetosee). What a shame. It’s exhausting to play those games, isn’t it?

I love that you thought of me when you read Hugo (the loving of places and the “man not afraid to weep,” especially). But I want to hear more about how Hugo’s helped you with the stuck place. You knew I’d ask. You can write about it, or we can talk in person in March. I feel like I have swirling questions about my life too (I could call it “stuck” maybe), so perhaps you can pass good Hugo’s wisdom on.

I hope you splurge and get those new boots, even though the funds are tight (I get it).

 

Your friend,

Winn

 

 

 

 

our neighborhood, while the storm was just getting started

seth and I taking a stroll in our neighborhood, when the storm was just getting started

A crushing snow storm, where the wild forces level our hubris and render all plans futile, offers a good reminder. We see again the raw beauty of this world, a beauty we did not create and could never pretend to control. And we see neighbors, large scoop shovels slung over their shoulders, walking down the middle of the snow-packed street, laughing, saying hello, grinning like a kid playing hooky. Is it possible we had forgotten that we are members, not makers, of this world? Is it possible we had forgotten that we belong to one another?

Last evening (after showering and returning to the comfort of my flannel pjs), I stood at our front balcony and peered with satisfaction over the work my father-in-law and I accomplished: digging a car out of the snow drift, clearing the sidewalks, scraping the driveway. Down the street, I saw a young couple new to our area and unprepared for a whiteout, chipping away at the colossal mound of white burying their red Mitsubishi. He had only a small garden spade, and she was doing the best she could, attacking the crusty pile with her plastic dust pan.

I called down, “Would you like a shovel?” She looked up and grinned. “If you have an extra, that would be great.” They took their pick of what I had to offer and dispensed of their mountain in no time. I was glad to assist, but I was also glad that I saw that woman whittling away at that impossible pile of snow. I enjoyed the strange and amusing sight of such fierce determination accompanied with such inadequate tools. More, though, I loved how this woman knew there was a job to be done, and that the snow was not going to sprout legs and move itself. All she had was a dust pan, and so that flimsy bit of plastic would have to do.

We really are a marvelous people living in a stunning and marvelous world.

pulled away_snow_mountains_tobi gaulke


When we lived in Colorado, our church met in a simple chapel tucked into the Front Range. Behind the pulpit and altar were large windows offering a panoramic view of tall, elegant pines, rugged ridges and a vast, blue sky. Each week, I would sit in my seat next to Miska and gaze west, toward the wild. Soon, I’d hear the call to worship, but those magnificent mountains had already made the call — and I had already answered with reverence and supplication. That splendid vista offered me an invitation to lay down my cares, to breathe deeply, to be present in this one place at this one hour, to trust that “the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s.” Our pastor was an extraordinary preacher, one of the best I’d heard; but I remember the light cutting across evergreens, the white clouds drifting across craggy peaks, every bit as much as I recall any text he expounded.

Last Sunday, as I stood behind our church’s pulpit, I looked out the windows and saw heavy white flakes falling from the sky. All of our trees, shed of their Fall glamor, stretched their bare branches toward the falling grace, like a child craning her neck and sticking out her tongue to catch the magic. We paused. We looked out the windows and watched the snow. We were quiet. It’s likely those few quiet moments were the best sermon we heard that day.

There’s a reason why, when Jesus began to preach, he would at times say things like, consider the lilies or watch the birds. There is a grace that surrounds us, a grace not of our own making. We can receive God’s kindness from the world around us, we can sense the truth and welcome it and walk right into it and allow all these mercies to hold us up. Sometimes we need words and explanation. Sometimes we just need big eyes and a wide-open heart.

As Kosser and Harrison put it:

The moon put her hand
over my mouth and told me
to shut up and watch.

railroadThere’s more than a little pressure these days to live the grand life, to go full tilt, to know precisely where the world’s deep hunger and your deep gladness collide – and then to live from there. I appreciate the best expression of these reminders. Too many of us exist with a soul-numbing drudgery where we are never asked to exert anything of consequence, nothing that stirs the bones. We are never asked to ponder our true essence or to offer our unique voice. We’re never challenged to risk anything. No one ever pulls us aside to insist how essential it is that we pay attention whenever we believe something with such conviction or imagine some possible future with such clarity that we feel we might go crazy if we do not expend ourselves, even if the foolhardy pursuit likely means our ruin. Too many of us hand away the sturdiest part of ourselves, plug into the machine and acquiesce to the subtle cruelty of imposed expectations. We’re alive, but just barely.

And yet these ideals, divorced from the grit of life, become a harsh taskmaster, if not a privileged fantasy. To live from your place of deep gladness does not mean — can never mean — that we circumvent the pain of bearing a burden others do not bear or the wearisome task of seeing a possibility others do not see. To live your truest life does not mean we get to avoid the responsibilities rightly laid upon us: the responsibilities that accompany our call to love and care for others, to surrender our life, to participate in the flourishing and well-being of those to whom we have committed ourselves.

Many days, our best life means simply putting one foot in front of the other and mustering the energy to stay true for another day, another season. Sometimes the possibilities we envision will never come to fruition for us, like those old saints in Hebrews who were faithful even to death and yet did not experience all the promises. This is a hard pill to swallow, isn’t it?

Any life we might imagine that is devoid of cost, any life that exists only in the realm of euphoric pleasures (rather than pleasures that include toil and disappointment and the persistent need to cling to hope) – that’s a small, immature vision. This kind of untethered pursuit will not endure the long road that stretches before us. It will not yield a life worthy of the vast goodness and strength that resides in you. We were made for things truer, deeper, more solid.

Over the next week or two, most all of us (I hope) will be winding down the engines for a few days of leisure (I hope you squeak out a full week). Many of us will welcome friends and loved ones into our home. Others of us will board planes, trains or automobiles so we can travel to places where we will be the ones receiving welcome. Some of us will watch our children, a little misty-eyed, aware that these moments are too fleeting and will end too soon. Many of us will revel in all the chaos while a few of us will slip away to a quiet corner, overwhelmed by all the good energy. Most of us, I suspect, will eat more food than we need. Hopefully we’ll all laugh more than is typical.

To be sure, some of us will face hardship over this stretch of days. Some of us will know loneliness or scarcity or sit heavy with memories of ones no longer with us. A few of us will bear the weight of disappointment or estrangement, all manner of burdens. Whatever our sorrow, I pray joy will catch us by surprise. I hope we’ll allow ourselves to be carried by the love that always surrounds and sustains us.

And over these days, I hope you have a fabulous book or two that will swallow you whole, that you see a fantastic movie and hear enchanting music. I hope you find yourself, at least once or twice, enjoying really good conversations, ones where your heart feels light and you walk away thinking, well, now, that was an hour I’d do over again. I hope you enjoy stretches of quiet, where nothing is asked of you, nothing required, where you have nothing you must tend to, save pleasure and gratitude.

I hope all of his for you, and more. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

 

vintagesanta.2

In my family growing up, every Christmas Eve, before we turned out the lights and cast a final gaze at our stockings, we’d leave a few cookies, perhaps a brownie or a chocolate covered cherry, on a plate next to a glass of eggnog and a short note:

Thanks, Santa. Stay warm.

P.S. Be sure to share with Dasher, Dancer and the Crew

And every Christmas morning, even into my college years, mom and dad would place one gift for my sister and one for me, out in front of the tree, set apart from the rest of the packages. On each of these boxes, scribbled across the front: Merry Christmas, Santa. I’d always hug my folks, grin and say Thanks, Santa.

We say Father Christmas isn’t “real” — fine I suppose, but there’s something very real happening here that won’t let us loose. With some folks, Santa’s taken a knock, either out of frustration with crass commercialization or due to religious concerns (and if you have such scruples, you really should read the tale of St. Nicholas). However, we don’t know these stories merely because Madison Avenue wants to milk us for billions — that’s just a perversion. Rather, we tell these stories over and again (and they stick with us so powerfully) because we are in constant search for a language to express all the wonder, all the gratitude. We need true myths because sheer facts or flat logic are not enough.

We return to these stories because somehow we know there is a true magic (call it grace, if that helps) woven into this world. In our depths, we know that our life and all the goodness enveloping us arrives as pure gift. We know that hope and faith and love are essentials. We know a mystery, a holy haunting, pulses at the center of things. Somehow, our soul knows that if we experience no awe or wonder, we are paupers.

As Advent commences, we wait for the Christ child. We lean forward, in anticipation. We watch for wonder. St. Nick can encourage us in the same direction. Maybe St. Nick holds open a space, a longing or a child-like imagination, a space that will eventually be filled by the deepest magic of all.

///

G.K. Chesterton, our apostle of mirth, says it far better than me:

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill. {G.K. Chesterton}

Frosted-Tree-Tops

There are moments when you experience a deep settledness, a generous contentment, with your life. You find yourself at ease or you realize that the laughter’s flowing free or maybe you recognize how, with almost no effort on your part, your joy exudes an uncanny resilience. And what I find most delightful with these generous flashes is how I can never tell you exactly why they’ve arrived, what wind blows them in – or even what wind will eventually push them on. I did not manufacture this grace, and so I know it’s foolhardy to cling tight. It’s my happy lot to just enjoy the gift, to wink and say thank you.

I’ve experienced this ineffable joy a time or two over the past couple weeks. Our life is good, but we’ve had no fewer troubles than normal. If anything, our world has added a few stress factors that would typically leave me sucking wind. And yet, here and there, I’ve been overcome by a profound gratitude, an awareness (even if only for a few hours) that I am alive in this good and magnificent world with people I love, doing work that, though small and ordinary, matters to me and maybe to a few others as well.

For so many good gifts, I want to say my thanks. There are sorrows in this world, but there is also much goodness, much beauty, much possibility. As often as the gifts come, I want my thanks to come just as fast. “Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth,” say Barth. “Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace as thunder follows lightning.” Like thunder follows lighting, yes indeed.

In this week when we turn our heart to gratitude, I want to join the chorus. I also want to thank those of you who read my words. Perhaps it sounds cheeky for a writer to say thank you for reading, but what else would we say? And particularly if we really mean it? So, thanks to those of you who land here regularly, those who drop a line every once in a while. It matters.

cabin

There is a place in my mind, tucked away in the Virginia Blue Ridge or just outside one of the little towns we love so much in the Colorado Rockies. We slip away, to this little roost, as often as we’re able. We do not come here merely to ‘get away,’ because this little porch, these acres, are not an escape but rather a way of returning – to wholeness, to the good earth, to a kind of slowness that reminds us we are humans and lovers and friends, not machines. We take our boys here and over time (and perhaps without them ever realizing what’s happened), these four walls and these kind woods become a sacred spot for them as well.

My vision has grown over the years. Now I envision a few more cabins, nestled into the hills nearby – not too far but not too close. A few friends have their own little place of laughter and wholeness. Together, we form a kind of mountain neighborhood. Together, we split wood and walk the forests and share more than a few warm dinners under moonlight. Friendships ripen here. We share a bond born in simplicity, a sense of wonder at this splendid world – and our place in it, an ever-expanding delight and gratitude, a sturdy hope that will not yield despite all the troubles, a keen sense of pleasure.

We don’t talk much about these places we share, because the whole experience seems to us a quiet thing, a neighborly thing. But we do welcome folks in as much as we’re able; we pass along the spaciousness we’ve been given. Our little spot in the woods makes us more whole, more true to ourselves and to one another. We have been given another place to love, to be welcomed into the solidness and generosity of this good world, and we are the better for it.

I don’t know if this vision will ever come to be, but I believe that even the picture of it, the possibility, enlarges my heart and keeps something very good burning bright.

 

image: anoldent

I’ve lived with my old pal fear for a very long time. I don’t know if I struggle with fear more or less than the average person (who, by the way, has ever met this mythical average person?), but I do know that I’ve endured seasons in my life where I thought fear might ruin me, where the anxieties felt so overwhelming, so deafening, that I could no longer imagine a day when I would feel hope or lighthearted again.

These experiences attack your personhood. They make you feel weak and ashamed because you know you’re supposed to be able to handle your life, you’re supposed to be able to do basic stuff like have coffee with a friend or cuddle with your kids or drive your car to work without thinking you’re about to lose your everlovin’ mind.

There’s a lot to be said about all this, but for those who are in the midst of this dark hole, you must hear me: there’s lots of help. Our lives don’t have to lock into this debilitating cycle forever. A few good friends make a world of difference – and if you haven’t entrusted your story to someone, take that leap. It’s not that having friends makes the noise go away, but it does mean you’ll have someone to go grab a taco or see a movie with you when the noise hits an unbearable decibel. Also, doctors and therapists are your allies here. I know therapists can be expensive, but don’t let that stop you. Exercise and being outside does wonders. Sometimes your biochemistry is off, and meds do the trick. And sometimes, you have to just gut it out, at least for a little while. You have to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking, choosing to believe that the crazy circus show that’s camped out in your head will not stay forever.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned about my fears. Maybe this will be helpful to you, maybe not. Whenever I fear something in a compulsive, runaway train kind of way, I’ve learned that I have to step into the fear, not away from it. If I fear an interaction with a person, I step toward them. If I fear a certain social setting, I move into it. I don’t do this all the time, creating some whole other loony compulsion. Rather, when the time seems right or when my action is required in order for me to be present with those I love, I buckle up and do the opposite of what my fears tell me.

There’s psychological language for what I’m describing, but for me, it’s merely my refusal to allow my fears to control me. Whenever I enact this courage, it doesn’t mean my fear immediately evaporates (I may still feel anxious energy pulsing or I may still have wild chatter in my head). It only means I’ve decided that how I feel (fearful) does not define who I am (bold and hopeful). And I choose, in those moments, to act on the truth of who I am rather than on the lie of what I feel. This is a battle, and if I’ve made it sound easy, I lied. But it’s a good battle, and over time, the skirmishes lessen in frequency and intensity.

Here’s the thing: Fear’s gonna do what fear’s gonna do. We have to just keep on living.

bike community

Years ago, when our boys were little, we had a small community of friends that gathered in our home for several years. One evening, our oldest (three at the time) asked, in eager expectation, whether our friends were coming over. “Yes,” I answered. “Why do you like having them here?”

My son paused only a moment. “Because they love us. And they help us fight the dragons.”

In the years previous and the years since, I’m not sure I’ve heard a better definition of friendship than this one from my three-year-old. Friends (true friends) love the person we are, not the person they imagine we are or the person we pretend to be. Friends clasp arms with us as together we swing at the darkness.

I’ve often wondered what the future will reveal about how we’ve raised our sons, how we’ve done with our hopes to help them become good men who live good lives. I wonder if our meandering efforts will prove enough to help them take their good place in this topsy-turvy world. I will tell you this, though: the friends who have been in our life (thus, the friends who have been in their lives) will play a larger role in all this than most of us imagine.

When I think about how I hope to love my sons along the path toward becoming their true selves, my mind turns to the people they are blessed to encounter. There’s Tom, the master carpenter, who takes us into his shop with the massively cool racks of hand tools and takes us for walks in the woods surrounding his land, all of which exudes presence, attentiveness and respect for craft and place. There’s Corey and Juli, who’ve loved them since the day each of them came squealing into this world. There’s Debbie who asks tender, meaningful questions, provoking care and curiosity. There’s John, the poet, who sits at the kitchen table for games of Farkle and carries delight in how our boys are full-on boys, delighting too in how they are becoming men (but not yet, not yet). There’s Raul who gives them hugs and kisses on the cheek, as he does each of us each time he arrives, then pulls out his guitar for a jam session or pulls from his days as a coffee roaster and teaches my sons the art of the single pour. These friends are merely a sample – and on top of grandparents, uncle and aunts, so much love. We have so many good people in our lives, so many gifts. So many teachers.

John Lennon said he got by with a little help from his friends. We all do.